Story & photos by Brent Frazee
When Bill Hartman started fly fishing for crappie in the Kansas Flint Hills, he had a gallery.
Landowners were accustomed to seeing fishermen cast spinning gear for the big fish in their ponds and watershed lakes. But using a fly rod and small flies – well, this was something they had to see.
“Back in those days, you were looked at as an eccentric when you fished with a fly rod in the Flint Hills,” said Hartman, 68, who lives in Emporia, Kansas. “I was like the elephant that had come to town.
“The landowners would get their families together and they’d come out to see the nutty professor (Hartman is a former administrator at Emporia State University) out there in a belly boat, fly fishing on their ponds.
* Kevin Kurz, longtime owner of K&K Fly Fishers in Overland Park, Kan., recommends using a 1/32nd or 1/48th-ounce marabou jig with a No. 8 hook under a light strike indicator. His favorite colors are chartreuse and black, white and blue or white and pink.
* Kurz also has found success on a bead-head Wooly Bugger weighted so it sinks slowly. “It’s deadly when the crappie are in the shallows,” he said.
* David Cook, president of the Missouri Trout Fishermen’s Association, goes even smaller when he is targeting crappie in the shallows. He will use a1/64th to 1/100th-ounce marabou jig, often olive in color, under a feather-light strike indicator and slowly retrieve it over the top of brush.
* When the crappie move away from the banks, they often suspend over deep water. That’s when Kurz will go to a small minnow-imitation fly and find success.
“They had never seen anything like that before.”
Neither had the crappie. When Hartman used his fly rod to drop small doll flies into tight spots, the fish immediately reacted. Hartman caught big stringers full of crappie, and the word spread.
Some 30 years later, Hartman still fishes the same way. But he is no longer a novelty. Hartman has proved time and time again just how effective a fly rod can be when trying to entice crappie to bite.
“When I had my guide service, people would call me and ask, ‘Where do you fly fish for trout in Kansas?’ “ said Hartman, who once operated the Fly Fish Kansas Guide Service and taught fly fishing at Emporia State University. “I’d tell them, ‘We don’t. But we’ll catch just about everything else that swims in Kansas.”
“I don’t even use a spinning rod anymore. It’s a lot more fun to catch ‘em on a fly rod.”
Fly Fish Kansas
Hartman gets a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face when he talks about the “flies” he uses.
“I’ve been using small marabou jigs for years,” he said. “Well, the purists think they have to be using a true fly and they’ve tied some patterns that really work.
“I taught a friend of mine to fly fish and he got so excited about it that he developed his own fly. He called it Sarge’s Crappie Fly because he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. It’s deadly on crappie. But I still use a lot of cheap marabou jigs, too.
“I don’t think the crappie care.”
Hartman uses a 6-weight fly rod, a 3X tippet, and a 1/32nd-ounce jig or fly suspended under a strike indicator.
The advantage of such a setup? It is more of a natural presentation, he can keep the lure in front of the fish longer, and he doesn’t have to reel it in to make another cast. He can use a simple flick of his wrist to reposition his fly.
When the crappie are in the shallows, I can catch a lot more fish on a fly rod than I could on a spinning rod,” he said.
Hartman uses a well-equipped belly boat, waders and flippers to maneuver where he wants to be. He targets shallow water as the water warms and the crappie move in to spawn. He looks for gravel banks, cover such as brush or rocks, and weed edges.
Hartman often starts in mid-March when the crappies are in the pre-spawn mode. He carries a water thermometer with him, and when he finds that the temperature has risen into the mid-50s, he knows the bite will really be on. As it reaches 60, there often will be large concentration of crappie in the shallows.
But there are no absolutes in pond fishing, he said. Sometimes, he has to try different banks until he finds one where there are concentrations of fish. And just because the crappies aren’t hitting at one pond doesn’t mean they won’t be at the next.
Hartman has permission to fish about 20 private ponds ranging in size from 8 to 50 acres in the Kansas Flint Hills. Some are known for producing good numbers of medium-sized black crappie. Others have a smaller population, but produce big fish, including some large white crappie.
“You would be surprised at the size of crappie that some of these ponds can produce,” Hartman said.
When Hartman talks about the size of the crappie in Flint Hills ponds, he relates two stories.
One is about the 3 ½-pound crappie he caught on a fly rod several years ago, the other is a tale about the big one that got away.
“My son caught the biggest crappie I have ever seen,” Hartman said. “To this day, I think it may have been a state record.
“He held it up to show me and it flopped and got loose. We still talk about that fish and wish we had been able to at least get a picture.”
Crappie of that size, of course, are rare. Hartman has fished the Flint Hills ponds for 30 years, and he has seen only a few extraordinary fish.
Still, he said, it’s common to catch crappie 10 inches and larger. And a stringer full of them at the right time of the year.
I’ve had days when I’m absolutely worn out from catching fish,” he said. “I know that sounds like a fish story, but it’s true.”
A Spring Thing
Spring is the time of the year when fly fishing for crappie stands out.
The water warms faster in small bodies of water than it does in large reservoirs, so the crappie spawn often is accelerated. Hartman can expect four to six weeks of good crappie fishing each spring before the water warms to the point where the fish move deeper and become less vulnerable to flies.
Even in the spring, weather fluctuations can change where the fish will be. A cold front can back the crappie off the banks and send them out to slightly deeper water.
But again, ponds offer an advantage. Because of their small size, they have less water for the fisherman to search. Hartman often experiments until he finds the right depth, then sets his strike indicator accordingly.
Even in the summer, he will use a long leader and drift in 20 to 30 feet of water and catch crappie. But for the most part, it’s a spring thing.
“I love getting out in the Flint Hills in the spring, when everything is greening up and the crappie are biting,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”